For Marta, the tsadek swallowed by the
On Tigray, Gadl and Gadli
By Walata Tsion
A quick glance at the monastic holdings of a monastery in
Tigray reveals something startling: much of the
collection is comprised of Gadl, the
biography of saints and their epic spiritual
battles and exploits.
It is a startling revelation when we
compare it with holdings in Gojam or Gondar or
Shewa, the traditional center of power after
Aksum. Gojam is swamped with precious manuscripts
of Dagwa (church chants), Aquaqam, Mahlet, Zema,
Mewasit; Gondar, renown for its illuminated
manuscripts, its beautiful majestic script; Shewa,
as epicenter of power has just about everything
reflecting of the majesty and opulence of
Ethiopian kings: paintings, Patristic theology,
Andemta, and volumes of Degwa.
of the world, by whom they were forgotten,”
wrote 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon
in his description of “Aethiopians” after the
fall of Aksum. A thousand years of silence
followed. King Kaleb’s exploits of Aksum,
marching to the Arabian Penninsula with 100,000
men, across the sea, with an army of elephants
seemed truly like a distant past.
The old capital Aksum was abandoned and he
lusher greenery of Shewa became the new center.
Aksum relegated to memory and imagination
became politically peripheral, separated from the
center by more than one thousand kilometers of
rugged and ungovernable terrain.
Aksum, trapped by its geography and
isolated from central polity looked inward:
the era of the Gadl was born.
the cantors in Gojam excelled in the arts of
chanting and liturgy and while Gondar reveled in
gold rimmed calligraphy and manuscript
illumination, Aksum and much of Tigray, removed
from the center, embraced monasticism in earnest.
The rugged and inhospitable terrain, the
hard to tame land, the rocky outposts served as
natural supports for the contemplative life.
The ephemeralness of life-to be born only
to die, to till the land for little fruits,
vulnerability, unpredictability, the unreliable
nature of the compounded world, gave ample energy
for contemplation and renunciation. The bare
monastic life, its simplicity and its bareness
were embraced in earnest.
Misfortunes and unfavorable conditions and
circumstances were transformed into supports for
the life of the renunciant. Poverty became wealth.
The life of the renunciant became the deep
aspiration of those within the cultural radius of
became a monastic culture.
so the literature of the Gadl proliferated
in Tigray. The Gadl is the story of a
common person who renounces the world to begin an
inner struggle against everything that the
bewitching world relies on to propagate itself:
lying, stealing, killing, an obsession with the
self and everything that the obsession gives birth
to: the need to dominate others,
the need for power.
By recognizing the ephemeral for what it
is, the common person breaks through this illusion
and comes closer to a more sober truth: the
impermanence of life and the futility of human
In so doing, he treads the path of the tsadek,
the holy man, who abandons the ephemeral and seeks
rest in an unchanging, undeceiving, uncompounded
rigors of the life of the tsadek are all
pervasive in the Tigrayan mental and physical
landscape. Perhaps then this explains why fasting
is continuous in the city of Aksum; food is
sparingly eaten even during non-fasting days. An
entire city turned monastic. Perhaps this also
explains the resolutely stubborn but generally
kind character of the Tigrayan; after all the tsadek
is resolute in his path but his ultimate goal is
to experience the love of God through the love of
his brethren. Perhaps this explains also why the
Dekika Estifanos refused to bow down to their
earthly king, Zara Yacob, for the king in spite of
his majesty is also ephemeral and passing; a tsadek's
main struggle is after all against forms of
idolatry in all its crude and subtle forms.
Maybe then this also explains the actions of
Emperor Yohannes IV, who instead of defending
Massawa, against the advice of his own general Ras
Alula, went to defend Gondar, to defend the
persecution of his brethren. To give up Massawa
for un-strategic Gondar...is this not the mark of
Could this also explain the reason why Abuna
Ewostatewos refused to stop the veneration of the
Saturday Sabbath, for the consecration of time is
a higher truth than the consecration of space and
matter. For maintaining this position, Abuna
Ewostatewos brought upon himself and his followers
the wrath of the king, Zara Yacob.
It was a clash of sensibilities. Shewa's
empire building ambitions required that value be
placed on matter, on land, and on the materially
tangible. Tigray had long abandoned that ideal.
And even when central power suddenly shifted
north, as did under Yohannes IV, the monastic tsadek
ideal continued to dominate the narrative.
It was only when the TPLF came to power,
with its capital in imperial Shewa, that the tsadek
ideal was totally abandoned,
a radical departure from Tigray's deepest
orientation. The source of all our woes was
identified to be none other than poverty!
Poverty-our long time friend-,
renunciation-our long time ally- were now
considered stains to be eliminated and fought
against by all means possible.
Tigray remained entrenched in its peripheral-ness,
its inner life flourished. Forgotten by the
Empire, it had carved a new identity in prayer,
contemplation, righteousness, wisdom. Why be
enchanted with the world when a mine of gold lies
within? But this new identity went against every
human instinct to latch on to the physical world
despite its ephemeralness, to cling to comfort, to
wealth, to more and more.
It required a persistent battle, a constant
inner vigilance, an awareness of shame and “newri”.
It required a spiritual warrior. It is for
this reason that when in 1984, during the great
Tigray Famine, the Swiss nurse working out of
Quiha, Claire Bertschinger with very limited
supplies had to choose between who would get to
eat and who would not, who would live and who
would die...something astonishing happened. As a
thin cord separated those who would get rations
and those destined to die from hunger; the living
hunkered down in shame, "newri" unable
to eat while others are dying; the dying walked
away from the feeding stations, empty handed, so
the living could eat without shame, "newri".
Not a single protest. Not a single complaint. No
riots. Complete willful order, without the use of
a single police to enforce order. A society
restrained by "newri" and "fariha
egziabher". Most societies have an abundance
of outer order but little in the way of an
The outer order is enforced by promulgated
laws and legislation and lethal force when needed.
Societies like Tigray are the outliners, whereby
the outer order of the society is purely
maintained because of an internal order that
pulsates outwards to the society.
sensibilities of the tsadek and the Gadl
runs in the veins of today’s Tigray
else can one explain the readiness to sacrifice
one’s life for a higher good over and over so
many times, except that it is precisely what the tsadek
does in sacrificing his life to God in every deed
and act of each single day?
How else can one explain the unwillingness
to kill one’s captured enemy in battle except
that it is the emulation of the Gadl life, the
tsadik who strives for absolute freedom
from his own vices of anger and greed and
can one explain the unwillingness to bow down to a
central king or ruler..except to understand it in
the context of a culture deeply repulsed by all
the echelons of power and the degradation it
brings to the human soul?
An ancient story runs in the veins of every
Tigrayan and a
Tegadalay, resuscitates from deep inside his
memory, the battles of the tsadek from
which he himself is carved.
the Gadl literature, the battle is always a
one way lane.
There is no turning back
on the road to becoming a Tsadek. A
monk is forever a monk and giving up his vows is
unthinkable. A tsadek may not necessarily
reach his final destination (absolute vanquish of
the enemy within: greed, anger, jealousy), and may
choose often to die in battle than reverse course.
For a tsadek, there is no turning
back; there is after all nothing to turn back to
that is reliable in the compounded world, which is
created and which disintegrates by mere causes and
conditions. By becoming a warrior, a tsadek
gives up his parents, his home, his community and
assumes a new name, a new communitas,
having set fire to the bridge that leads to
his former identity. The loyalty to the path is
the seed from which all accomplishments of the
saint are born. It is this instinct, still beating
faintly that was reverberating in the heart of
Seyoum Mesfin who chose to meet his death, alone.
Seyoum Mesfin with just a few books and a
pen, like a hermit monk, was found in rural
Tigray, where he faced his death, alone. Not to
give in to the instinct to flee, like many others
have done, when one could, like many have done..is
this not truly the behavior of a tsadek?
deep and profound is the cultus of the Gadl
in Tigray that
even without awareness, the armed struggle
of TPLF, was
colored by the actions of the Tsadek.
The Tsadek is a martyr, and so when the
Tegadalay falls in battle, he is a Sewu’.
The word sewu’ is from the Geez root
SW’, from which we also get words such as maswa’it
It is always connected with a temple
offering, an offering to God. The use of the word
sewu’, the passive participle of the verb
in reference to a tegadaly who falls in
battle, is telling. The more common word for death
mota is avoided when referring to the death
of a tegadalay. In effect,
the tegadaly is a martyr, one who offers
his life specifically in a ritual context. While
Christian martyrs traditionally were martyred for
upholding their faith, today the tegadaly taps
into the long narrative of martyrdom, where such a
death has religious undertones and is associated
with the highest offering possible: one’s life.
The sewu’ is a martyr which the TPLF
armed struggle resuscitated from the Tigrayan
ethos and dressed it in nationalist fervor.
today's war in Tigray, three kinds of fighters are
are Imperial Amhara fighters who march with the
motivation of conquering land, like the kings of
are the children of
Askari Eritreanism, mercenaries, whose
motivation is clouded by an inner obscuration of
so are perfect vehicles of executing orders from
above, while benefitting from some monetary
And there is the tegadalay of Tigray in
whose veins runs the story of the tsadek.
Through the Gadl, Tigray was built over and
over many times, as in the past so in the future,
like an impossible story.